Expats review: a melodramatic, laborious misfire

Margaret stands on a Hong Kong street at night in Expats.

“Expats is an overambitious, six-episode drama that fails to overcome its many flaws and shortcomings.”

Pros

  • Lulu Wang’s often artistic direction
  • Sarayu Blue and Ruby Ruiz’s memorable supporting performances

Cons

  • Numerous contrived, emotionally inauthentic scenes
  • Nicole Kidman and Ji-young Yoo’s disappointing lead performances
  • Several stylistically jarring, out-of-place moments and sequences
  • A relentlessly glacial pace

Expats is an expensive, prestige TV production that never quite clicks. Based on a 2016 novel by Janice Y. K. Lee, it’s the latest small-screen offering from its producer and star, Nicole Kidman, whose TV track record has grown shockingly unimpressive in recent years. Even more importantly, the show is writer-director Lulu Wang’s long-awaited follow-up to The Farewell. That oft-lauded, Awkwafina-led dramedy announced its director as a filmmaker with a clear eye and a talent for capturing sincere, culturally rooted strains of comedy and heartache on-screen.

With Expats, which she directed entirely on her own and co-wrote alongside a small team of writers, Wang has only further honed her knack for crafting well-composed, unobtrusively artistic images. The often grueling drama, however, lacks both the tonal precision and authenticity of The Farewell. It’s a TV series overflowing with ideas about womanhood and class, but it lacks the emotional depth and honesty required to communicate them effectively. As a follow-up to Wang’s breakout 2019 Sundance hit, it’s a colossal disappointment — and an undeniable misfire for everyone involved.

Clarke lies on Margaret's lap in Expats.
Prime Video

At the center of Expats are three women: Margaret (Kidman), a well-to-do American mother of three based in Hong Kong; Hilary (Sarayu Blue), Margaret’s neighbor and on-again, off-again friend; and Mercy (Ji-young Yoo), a young Korean emigrant whose life becomes irreconcilably crossed with Margaret’s and Hilary’s after a tragic accident involving Margaret’s youngest son. When Expats begins, the little boy in question has already gone missing, but it isn’t until the Amazon Prime series’ second episode that the details of his disappearance, as well as Mercy’s role in it, are revealed.

That decision is very much by design. As a series, Expats dedicates a surprisingly short amount of time to its central tragedy. It’s more concerned with exploring the fallout of the event itself, with its six episodes lingering in the layers of psychological and emotional trauma inflicted not only on Margaret and her family, but also on Mercy, Hilary and her alcoholic husband, David (Jack Huston), and even several figures who seemingly exist only around the edges of their lives. It charts the ramifications of Margaret’s familial tragedy at a pace that never once seems to quicken.

At first, the miniseries’ narrative tempo seems measured. By the time one has reached the show’s halfway mark, though, its glacial pace doesn’t feel purposeful anymore so much as it does indulgent. That only makes the overlong runtimes of its episodes feel all the more apparent, which in turn makes it hard to ignore the feeling that Wong, Kidman, and company have taken what should have been a two-hour movie and unnecessarily stretched it into a six-and-a-half hour series. Before long, Margaret, Hilary, and Mercy’s long stares at rain-soaked Hong Kong and slow walks through urban corridors have lost their emotional weight and begun to feel like increasingly frustrating instances of pure, unadulterated navel-gazing.

Mercy shakes Charly's hand on a train in Expats.
Prime Video

Expats’ relentlessly self-serious tone makes it impossible to ignore the inauthentic nature of its storytelling. Throughout its episodes, the series forces its characters — and the actors portraying them — into situations and modes of behavior that push one’s suspension of disbelief past its breaking point. In its fourth episode, an elevator breakdown results in an argument between Blue’s Hilary and her condescending mother that goes to bafflingly personal places, despite the presence of a complete stranger less than a foot away from them. Expats also struggles to find any nuance in the grief experienced by Kidman’s Margaret — alternately characterizing her in its latter episodes as either cartoonishly paranoid or appallingly stubborn and selfish.

Kidman has long been rightfully considered one of the most gifted performers of her generation, but she frequently feels misused in Expats, a show that doesn’t know how to let her perform at anything other than extreme levels. Of the show’s lead actors, only Blue emerges truly unscathed. She plays Hilary with an endearing balance of insecurity and obliviousness that allows the character to grow into something more than just another rich socialite. In addition to Blue, Ruby Ruiz also turns in a standout performance as Essie, Margaret’s dedicated nanny, whose complex personal attachment to her work family is movingly, subtly explored throughout Expats’ final episodes.

As the show’s sole director, Wang brings a level of visual craftsmanship to Expats that reflects its considerable budget, but she struggles to exercise the same artistic restraint throughout the series that she did in The Farewell. The drama’s directorial influences seem to range from formal Japanese masters like Yasujirō Ozu and Hirokazu Koreeda all the way to American auteurs like Jonathan Demme and Mike Mills, and Wang doesn’t always manage to blend Expats‘ disparate stylistic inspirations together successfully. Its latter episodes include an emotionally jarring Katy Perry needle drop, a music video-esque montage of Yoo’s Mercy walking through the streets of Hong Kong that feels totally out of place, and a collection of Demme-inspired, straight-down-the-barrel close-ups that don’t work nearly as well as Wang intends them to.

Hilary sits at a bar in Expats.
Jupiter Wong / Prime Video

In its penultimate installment, Expats goes bigger and longer than most TV shows would dare. It blows apart the once-contained scope of its story by turning its attention to the service workers who take care of its rich characters’ houses and the Hong Kong residents who are determined to continue fighting for its cultural and political independence. The episode is, at times, astonishing, but it also feels misplaced in a series that had previously shown little interest in both the complicated contemporary political landscape of Hong Kong and the lives of its natural-born citizens. It’s an admirable detour, but one that will leave you conflicted over its place within the show’s larger story.

That’s because Expats often seems, like its core characters, lost, unmoored, and unsure of itself. It’s an intense drama that goes in a dozen different stylistic and thematic directions over the course of its six episodes, but without a clear hold on its material and tone, the series’ many flourishes and tangents don’t so much highlight its depth as much as they reveal just how lacking it is in that respect. It’s a skyscraper without the strong foundation necessary to support all of its ideas and desires, and so to watch Expats is like seeing one of the year’s most promising productions slowly, but surely crumble right in front of your eyes.

The first two episodes of Expats are streaming now on Amazon Prime Video. New episodes premiere weekly on Fridays. Digital Trends was given early access to all six of the show’s installments.

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